Pain is a fantastic motivator and a terrible teacher. It moves us to make decisions that feel right, justified even, in the moment, but, with a bit of time, reveal themselves to have been the poorer of the options. By allowing pain to guide you, you’ll learn all the wrong lessons in harrowing ways. Conceived and directed by James Nunn (The Marine 6: Close Quarters) and with a screenplay by first-time feature writer Jamie Russell (Ghosted), Screen Media’s new film One Shot explores the generational trauma of global terror through the lens of American values and those who would devise plans to topple the U.S. government. Considering Nunn devised the film as a non-stop single-take experience, one might expect constant action and nary an ounce of depth, yet his One Shot ends up being emotionally charged, stylistically executed, and full of surprises at every turn.
Lt. Jake Harris (Scott Adkins) and his three-man SEAL squad are serving as protection for junior CIA analyst Zoe Anderson (Ashley Greene Khoury) as she travels to a remote island CIA black site to retrieve a terrorist, Amin Mansur (Waleed Elgadi), who is believed to possess information that could prevent an upcoming attack on U.S. soil. At first, the only issue they have in the acquisition of Mansur is a pissing contest with the site manager, Jake Yorke (Ryan Phillippe), until a group of mercenaries led by Hakim Charef (Jess Liaudin) changes everything and suddenly everyone finds themselves in a fight for their lives with every second they can’t get off the island inching the U.S. closer to an unbelievable horror.
Let’s first address the perceived set-dressing of One Shot: the all-in-one-take style. According to the press notes, Nunn’s been keen to do this for some time and it wasn’t until the successes of Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014) and 1917 (2019) that the money-folks began to be more comfortable with the concept. Because it’s my job as a critic to examine a work, I will admit that I found myself paying steady attention to the editing and there were maybe maybe two scenes in which I saw what could be an edit bridging one scene or take to another; otherwise, believe the title. This film is shot so beautifully by cinematographer Jonathan Iles (Green Street 3: Never Back Down) and camera operator Tom Walden (Green Street 3: Never Back Down) that if you’re not paying close attention to it, you’d honestly think you were watching more of a documentary than a scripted work. Part of this is because the way traditional editing utilizes framing by way of multiple perspectives and coverage points provides breadcrumbs and foreshadowing. Since this is presented as a single take with no editing, there’re absolutely no clues or leads given as to what may or may not happen. We get the perspective of whomever the camera is following (Harris, Anderson, Mansur, Liaudin), but not necessarily what they see. For instance, the camera might pivot from behind Harris, where we were looking over his shoulder, to show us his face. This immediately places our back to where the danger may be coming from *or* put us in a position to see something he doesn’t. But if it’s not in the line of the shot, there’s no warning, no alarm, no signal of trouble which ups the tension as Harris and his team find themselves quickly out-numbered, out-gunned, and slowly out-flanked. That Nunn aims for a one-shot extended take could be blown off as style over substance as this unique approach requires creativity in a scene that more traditional films don’t need as they can hide things in the edit or convey information via location-shifting. That’s not possible here and the script not only addresses every question you might have, but does so in a variety of unexpected ways.
So let’s talk script: this narrative could easily be bargain bin claptrap. Just U.S.A. Hoorah nonsense. The premise certainly sets things up in that direction and, frankly, the film would be easier if it were just that. Instead, Russell’s script opts to defy expectations, going beyond twists and turns (something the film has in spades, often using audience expectation against itself). Shockingly, I couldn’t help but interpret a narrative thread as an exploration of patriotism vs. nationalism and the irresponsible choices we make when we’re in pain. Patriotism is a feeling of love and devotion for one’s country, but you’re allowed to question it, to challenge it, to work within it to improve. Nationalism, by comparison, is about making your identity that of your country and working in those interests without regard for others and their countries. We see this in the presentation of Harris and his team versus the main individuals who run the black site. Harris is following orders, sure, but when given the choice of handing over the Mansur to the mercanaries or protecting him, he makes the hard choice to protect him at the risk of his team and others. There’s a greater good at play, not just the potential of stopping a threat, but a notion of not giving in to terrorist demands that are in line with the hard ideals of being American. Though the suggestion of handing over Mansur is presented out of fear of personal harm by a black site operative, it’s still against the greater interests of the world at large. Then there’s the explanation for Yorke’s persistent ire: he lost his wife in 9/11 as she was working in the North Tower. For many Americans, that backstory is reason enough to understand why he would want to oversee a black site and why he would struggle with the notion of letting a captive terrorist off-base, even if the paperwork is properly notarized. No bones about it, though, Yorke is indoctrinated to hate anyone who threatens Americans, activated by the trauma of the loss of his wife. That Russell then finds a similar motivation for Mansur’s alignment with a terrorist organization not only makes the man sympathetic, but presents a counter-argument for the way in which the war on global terror is nothing more than an ouroboros, perpetual and endless. One Shot didn’t have to go so deep, but it does and it’ll take you by surprise.
If you’re suddenly concerned that One Shot may delve so deeply into the complexities of war without bringing the thunder, allow me to remind you that this is a Scott Adkins film. This man craps thunder and pisses lightning in the kids’ movie Max Cloud (2020), so it’s safe to say that you get exactly what you expect from him here, a film which is most certainly for adults. I am already a fan of Adkins’s work having seen Triple Threat (2019), Avengement (2019), and both Debt Collector films, but his performance here feels different somehow. The others, visceral though they may get at times, are clearly staged, whereas, despite knowing that One Shot is also staged, the directorial approach here made every choice, every reaction, feel far more organic and in the moment. Usually I find Adkins’s work the best when he’s working with skilled action director Jesse V. Johnson (Avengement; Triple Threat), but Nunn brings something out in him that’s different and takes the actor to a new level. Adkins has a stunt background, so between him and fight choreographer Tim Man (Triple Threat), each of the extended fight sequences are staged for maximum brutality along with efficiency. Unlike traditional films which can make a five-minute clock run for 10-minutes, One Shot’s intentional lack of editing requires speed in order to hit the narrative beats. That said, there’re moments which feel improvised (like watching MMA Fighter Liaudin using his full-weight to control an opponent’s body from on top while also bouncing them both toward a weapon), inserting a spontaneity that removes the kinds of clichés that so many action films lean on in order to raise tension. For the most part, this entire cast is more than up to the physical challenges required to make the SEALs and the base insurgents believable.
Keep in mind that my approach to viewing One Shot is decidedly different than most audiences. If you don’t go into One Shot with analysis in mind, then you’re going to come out of the experience feeling highly entertained and will likely be itching to see more of Nunn, Adkins, and the rest. Keep in mind that, as a critic, I’m required to probe a work whereas a general audience is not. So, if you watch One Shot without the considerations I found regarding the never-ending cycle of terror, that’s fine. You can enjoy One Shot exactly as it is and have a good time. I would, though, encourage you, should you see what I see, to allow the film’s commentary to sit with you for a bit. I know it will with me.
In select theaters and on VOD November 5th, 2021.
For more information, head to the official Screen Media One Shot website.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.